Kilauea Volcano’s “Music” May Help Scientists Predict Eruptions, Says Study

Listen to these explosive sounds.

Hawaii’s Volcano Kilauea is linked to unusual natural phenomena, from catalyzing volcanic tornadoes to hailing green gems from the sky. But Kilauea’s ability to make “music,” or sounds that emit from the volcano’s cylindrical crater, could help scientists predict future eruptions, according to a new study.

To listen to these volcanic beats, researchers at Boise State University in Idaho collected infrasound recordings of the Cotopaxi Volcano in central Ecuador after a sequence of eruptions in 2015. The volcano’s crater had changed shape during that span of time, forcing air to reverberate against the crater walls when the volcano rumbled. Much like a pipe organ that makes sounds when pressurized air pushed through metal pipes, the narrowing of the volcanic crater emitted its own music. The scientists’ findings were published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, on Friday.

Volcano Cotopaxi, acting like a pipe organ

“It’s the largest organ pipe you’ve ever come across,” said Jeff Johnson, a volcanologist and the study’s lead author. Johnson’s recordings show how the geometry of a volcanic crater influences how the sound is produced. According to the study, understanding each volcano’s “voiceprint” could help scientists monitor changes within the volcano and even signal an impending eruption. And the ongoing eruption of Kilauea could be a proving ground for studying these musical changes, according to Johnson.

Although Cotopaxi had been dormant for most of the 20th century, the 2015 eruption triggered massive floods and damage to the surrounding area, endangering more than 300,000 people. The eruptions also caused the volcano’s crater floor to drop out of sight, which is when researchers began to notice weird sounds coming from the crater.

Johnson’s team would surmise that part of the crater floor may have been collapsing, which is common when magma moves under a volcano. Another possibility is that an explosion took place at the bottom of the crater, which happens in open-vent craters like Cotopaxi where gas tends to accumulate. But as Cotopaxi’s structural makeup shifted, so did its music.

In the case of Kilauea, the lava lake at the volcano’s summit drained as the magma flowed downward. When magma levels at Kilauea’s summit drop, the magma can heat groundwater and could cause explosive eruptions, causing geometric shifts in Kilauea’s crater, much like in Cotopaxi.

Listening to Kilauea’s infrasound could help scientists monitor the magma depth from afar, according to David Fee, a volcanologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who was interviewed for the study.

“It’s really important for scientists to know how deep crater is, if the magma level is at the same depth and if it’s interacting with the water table, which can create a significant hazard,” Fee said. Listening to the volcanic music and monitoring its changes could help scientists forecast its potential eruptive hazards.

“Understanding how each volcano speaks is vital to understanding what’s going on,” Johnson said. “Once you realize how a volcano sounds, if there are changes to that sound, that leads us to think there are changes going on in the crater, and that causes us to pay attention.”

Kilauea’s signature melody has been noteworthy because it sounds like literal screaming. While volcanic music is not exactly pleasant, these sounds could be a key to monitoring volcanoes for better planning and prevention.

Related Tags